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See the original article with photos here in the Gainesville Sun. It will appear in the hard copy Sunday, August 22, 2021.
Unless farming methods change radically, Florida’s springs and rivers are doomed
Even though protection is required by law, the above agencies are not carrying out their responsibilities and evidence indicates that they have no workable plan to restore our waters.
We see many references to green algae, red tide, the Everglades and, lately, references to manatee deaths. What is not as apparent but is equally critical is the consistent decline of flow in springs and rivers and the increasing pollution caused mainly by agricultural and septic tanks coupled with out-of-control excessive pumping of groundwater. Our springs collectively have lost around 32% of their historic average flows and gained nitrates several times over historic amounts.
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Our agencies are fully aware of the causes but do not have the will to address them. Instead of exerting their authority to reduce pumping and fertilizers, they spend billions of taxpayer dollars on searching for alternative water supplies.
Some efforts are good, such as installing sewage systems and wastewater projects, but others are ridiculous, such as water transfers. Most of these are simply costly treatments but not cures.
The reason they don’t attack the sources is because they are afraid to offend the polluters. Statewide, agriculture is the source of over 70% of nitrates, with septics at 12%. In the Suwannee River basin agriculture contributes 92% and septics 3%.
DEP and water management district employees must walk the fine line of appearing to be saving our springs but without offending the polluters. One ploy is to tout the huge sums of money they are spending on research projects and “studies” to save bits of water here and there. Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed a sham green algae task force to get expert recommendations which he summarily allowed to be ignored.
The supposed protections devised by the state are largely useless: Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs), Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) and Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) are really plans disguised to allow more water and fertilizer for polluters.
The DEP admits that the BMAPs will not meet their goals even if followed to the letter. The MFLs are set using models that can be tweaked to give the desired result to allow more pumping.
Water districts have been accused by competent independent water scientists of deliberately ignoring extant available data and using a model instead so they could reach the needed numbers. In recent years MFLs for the Silver and Rainbow rivers were revised and reset in order to accommodate agricultural enterprises wanting to pump more groundwater. \
Other supposed protections are designations such as Outstanding Florida Waterway, Primary Focus Area, Water Resource Caution Area, but these are simply words on paper which imply protection but do little to impede issuance of pumping permits.
Any grade school student can see that our current path is simply unsustainable. Farmers are essential and they must not be put out of business but farming methods must change radically. It is imperative that we emphasize less water-demanding crops, pump less and eliminate excessive amounts of fertilizer.
In the last 10 years our state spent $1.1 billion on our springs and rivers but has not come close to restoring even one. If those funds had been assigned to the inevitable transition to sustainable agriculture, we would be one large step down the road to restoring our springs and rivers.
Jim Tatum is historian for Our Santa Fe River of Fort White.